Bram Stoker’s brilliant classic of English literature Dracula, first published in 1897, has produced numerous film adaptations – from the sublime, like Nosferatu in both its 1922 and 1979 iterations; to the garbage, Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) for example. Though I acknowledge my views on the latter are not universal.
Arguably no film adaptation of the novel has produced a more iconic interpretation of the novel’s central character though than Tod Browning’s Bela Lugosi starring Dracula (1931). Browning’s is a Dracula tale full of towering castles crawling with terrifying life forms (including somewhat absurdly an armadillo), an incredible orchestral score, those iconic Universal Horror sets (which intriguingly hosted the shooting of a Spanish Language version of Dracula at night at the same time this film was being shot) and plenty more that brings the atmosphere. The film is just so wonderfully staged. Apparently it is based heavily on a play based on the book and that sort of shows in the construction of the film as a whole, especially the way in which characters are introduced and plotlines set up. In comparison to most adaptations of Stoker’s novel, Dracula spends very little time in Transylvania, rather getting rather more quickly into the London set part of the story. The Transylvania set part still contains some of the most fun parts of the film. The scene where Dracula first sees his houseguest’s blood is pretty fantastic, with a dynamic camera zooming in to emphasise Dracula’s bloodlust. Before Lugosi comes out with the zinger “I never drink… wine”. It is undeniable that this 80 odd year old film does clunk at times. There seems to be a particular obsession with close-ups of Lugosi’s face shrouded in darkness, with only a strip of light over his eyes.
It is impossible to talk about this film without discussing in depth Lugosi’s turn as Dracula. Indeed when most people think of Dracula, the image they have is not Stoker’s Dracula, it is Lugosi as Dracula. Look no further than last year’s fun animation Hotel Transylvania (2012), a film where Dracula as voiced by Adam Sandler looked a whole lot like Lugosi. Initially when watching the film this time around (I had seen it about 10 years ago), I was wondering if Lugosi’s performance was so iconic because of the actual performance itself, or just because of how his character looks. But it is immediately clear that Lugosi’s actual performance is really ace too. He has this shtick which he works throughout the film that just makes him seem to truly inhabit the role of Count Dracula. His Dracula is the bogeyman, both literally and figuratively, the dark force lurking in the shadows outside of a woman’s house in the darkness of night. It is easy to see why when so many people think Dracula, they think Lugosi. There is somewhat of a paradox at work here though. Because whilst Lugosi’s performance is stellar, he is not given the chance to show off his chops too much. Indeed Browning seems content to predominately focus on his (admittedly awesome) iconic look. Lugosi has some excellent support from other actors in the film too. In particular Dwight Frye as Renfield is really something else. Initially he hams it up wonderfully as the stranger in Transylvania who finds himself the houseguest of Dracula. Once he is sent mad by whatever occurs in that castle though, Frye’s performance becomes even better, as he is transformed into a Peter Lorre-esque force of nature. His performance is probably the most horrifying aspect of the film, at least it was for me.
Dracula is a very clever version of this ubiquitous tale that has stood the test of time and definitely deserves to be watched. It has to be seen to witness what is the most famous interpretation of the character of Dracula. But rest assured there is plenty else here to hold your interest as well.
Verdict: Pint of Kilkenny
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